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‘Mulan’: Reimagining the Disney Classic Through a Visual Language of Female Empowerment

Cinematographer Mandy Walker and costume designer Bina Daigeler created a new vision for conveying Mulan's inner power and strength.

Liu Yifei in “Mulan”

Disney

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Led by New Zealand director Niki Caro, Australian cinematographer Mandy Walker, and German costume designer Bina Daigeler, Disney’s lavish, live-action reimagining of “Mulan” provided the opportunity to accentuate female empowerment both in front of and behind the camera.

“We were cognizant of the fact that the animation [from ’98] was very successful, but Niki had a new take,” Walker said. “It was important that Mulan discovers that she has this inner power and strength, and that she needs to release it and be proud of the moment when she reveals herself as a woman.”

The team built the visual design around Mulan’s journey, always centered in the frame, inspired by symmetry in Chinese history, cinema (“Raise the Red Lantern” and “The Last Emperor”), art, and architecture. Daigeler also coordinated her work around that palette, concentrating on the Tang dynasty (618-907) for its use of primary colors, fabrics (cotton, silk, and leather), and symbols (clouds and animals). “We wanted to do an epic action movie that accentuates Mulan’s emotional strength and I tried to have that also in my costumes,” she said.

Mulan

“Mulan”

Disney

“Mulan,” which shot on 20 locations in China, was shot on the large-format Alexa 65 with a set of vintage lenses redesigned by Panavision, including the Sphero 65 (built from actual “Lawrence of Arabia” glass) to add softness around the edges for a vignette quality.

“We used a portrait lens [Petzval] where we put Mulan in the center of the frame and the rest would drop off so the audience is centered on her face,” Walker said. “And we used a Gauss for moments of her Chi to show her apart from everyone else, which provided a radial drop off and those little rainbows on the edges of the frame for a hyper-reality without making her a superhero.”

For Walker, who had never shot battle scenes before, the balletic fighting was choreographed to emphasize Mulan’s control. “We didn’t want this to be melee fighting,” she said. “We wanted to make her abilities elegant. Also, we used the smoke and steam to help us to create more of a magical, dangerous environment.”

Mulan

“Mulan”

Disney

Daigeler (who previously worked with Caro on “The Zookeeper’s Wife”) was immediately drawn to a Hanfu wrap dress she found in her research. “When I proposed it to Niki, I brought three prototypes and it became the matchmaking dress,” she said. “I developed the perfect shape with 12 meters of fabric and made it lilac in honor of the animated movie. It was filled with embroidered symbols: the butterflies, the magnolia that means ‘mulan,’ and the phoenix.” It introduced the entire Mulan package in one dress.

Mulan’s red tunic and battle armor, also culled from the Tang dynasty, was form-fitted to comply with the lyricism of the battle sequences. “It took a long process to make it lightweight and to find the right shape for the skirt,” Daigeler said. “I wanted the armor to move with her body and have it spread out in her jumps and in her flips. It’s all leather and cotton thread and sprayed to look like metal. There is cloud embroidery around the neck and a dragon band that are both inspired by the research.”

Mulan

“Mulan”

Disney

By contrast, the development of  Gong Li’s costume as the mysterious witch consisted of a long process of prototyping as they dug into her dark and powerful character. “We knew her emotions, that she could transform into a hawk, and that she couldn’t be who she wanted to be, which says something about our time now,” said Daigeler. “But we wanted to show that she’s somehow imprisoned in her costumes. That’s why she wears such a strong armor. Everything is made out of leather. And there is a color development. She is first in silver, and then it goes into gold. The costumes empower our actors and that is why Mulan wears red. It’s a very empowering color: joy, fire, and energy, related to the phoenix.”

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